Night Watch

dir: Timur Bekmambetov
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If this is Russia’s answer to The Matrix and the other fantasy / vampire type films Hollywood has pumped out in recent years, perhaps it would’ve been best had the question never been asked.

I am unfortunately in that position where something receiving a lot of buzz and praise has left me muttering “eh” under my breath and in the length, width and girth of my review. I just don’t think that it’s really that good. I am perplexed as to the good press it has received. In a way it feels like people are praising the Russians for producing such a film in the way people praise a retarded child when he starts reading See Spot Run ten years after the other kids, because he’s really trying so hard, and doesn’t he make you want to hug a puppy? Awww…

For me, this film is only different from the recent Constantine film by not having Keanu Reeves in it. They both have fantasy plots based on a war between the forces of Good and Evil, they both had nil characterisation and pointless plots, and they both had resolutions more insulting than revelatory. Still, Constantine was dumb. I’m not sure what Night Watch’s problem is, but it’s not just dumbness.

A heavily Russian-accented, English voiceover introduces us to the plot, where we are told about the forces of Light and Dark fighting a terrible battle on a bridge somewhere. For some reason, the generals of the two armies decide that killing each other is no longer fun, so what they have to do is decide to enter into a Cold War-like agreement where they don’t war in public and strictly monitor each other to ensure the truce remains in place.

This agreement persists for centuries. The two armies are made up of Others. The Others, not to be confused with the Nicole Kidman flick, are people born a bit different from everyone else. Anyone throughout human history who’s ever had a vision or any strange abilities seems to have been one of the Others. They get to choose whether they are to become members of the Light or the Dark.

The Light monitor the actions of the Dark army during the Night (hence the Night Watch title), and the reverse happens during the day. For reasons I can’t seem to work out, all the Dark Others become vampires and avoid feeding on human blood unless they’re given permission by the Light guys, who license them for feeding and for turning other people into vampires.

After the intro, the story is told in Russian, with English subtitles. It may seem odd to point something out like that, but the way the subtitles are implemented is the most creative and intelligent use of subtitles I’ve ever seen. I still think the film sucks, but the subtitling was utterly brilliant. The manner in which it conforms to what’s happening on screen, and adapts to actions, and emphasises the different situations that arise is breathtaking. I bet it is going to be ripped off shamelessly in the years that follow.

Flash forward to the present, and a nerdy guy we know nothing about at film’s beginning and nothing about at film’s end, goes to a witch to get her to make his ex-girlfriend come back to him. It’s set in what looks like a contemporary Moscow, so the idea is that this magical war goes on parallel to the real world, with the muggles oblivious to reality. Most humans can’t see Others anyway, unless they are Others themselves, and then it only happens during something especially traumatic.

The nerdy guy, Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), during the process of the witch’s spell, is revealed to be an Other, and he joins the ranks of the Light in order to battle against the forces of blah blah blah.

The story again flashes forward 12 years, where Anton, a character with no charisma, no defining traits and little to make me give a damn about him or anything he does, works on the Night Watch, specifically on a case where he is trying to protect a child who is being Called by a newly made vampire.

In the course of trying to find the child, another plot starts up where some woman from out of nowhere is revealed to be some classical mythic archetype called The Virgin, who has been cursed by someone and is inadvertently going to cause the end of the world.

The way in which one of these plots is resolved is simply idiotic. I don’t want to spoil anything in case people get sucked in by the reputation this flick has strangely built up and go see it, but I just thought it blew chunks. I was left saying “what the fuck?” out loud even though I understood what had happened.

The other leads to a twist ending so remarkable that, even with the worst foreshadowing I’ve ever seen (involving someone playing a Tekken-style fighting game in his lounge room early on), it almost makes up for the crappiness of the scripting that precedes it.

Look, I wanted to like it, I really did. I’m the natural audience for this kind of stuff. I get the references, I laugh at the humour, and I have more than enough willing suspension of disbelief to handle the premise.

But that doesn’t mean I can tolerate a poorly written script. I know it’s based on a sequence of popular Russian fantasy novels, but I don’t care. There is sloppy storytelling throughout this, and it doesn’t help that for some reason the main character seems drunk throughout the entire flick.

Not just at the beginning, where they explain it. They also introduce characters that do little if anything, leaving you to think “Well, what was the point of that?” They use technology in an idiotic simple-minded and embarrassing way, like using some kind of search engine to find out who The Virgin came in contact with over the last three days, all the people who’ve suffered bad luck in her presence, and all the puppies that have died as a result of her unlucky touch. Can I get the URL for that one, please? I knew Russian sites could be dangerous, but I had no idea how wonderful technology could be, even in the hands of mystical nerds.

And don’t get me started on the editing. Director Timur Bekmambetov has ‘transcended’ his tv commercial roots, and it shows, painfully. There are scenes so horribly and pointlessly over-edited that my fight-or-flight reflex kicked in. There’s also lots of that shaky camerawork that I really, really am not a fan of.

It also doesn’t help that Anton is such a personality vacuum of a character or actor. I actually hoped that the world would be destroyed so I wouldn’t have to see him again.

There were elements that I really did like. See, I actually like the premise / story. I just hated the plot and the way the plot went from A to B to What the fuck just happened and why?

Anton’s relationship with his next door neighbour Kostya (Aleksei Chadov) was really interesting to me. It worked well, and as circumstances changed, their friendship changed as well. All too brief. He had the possibility of being an interesting character, but disappeared. He does at least bring up the morality argument of what the Night Watch does, and whether it is right or not, which is brought up again and again throughout the flick.

The introduction of the character of Olga (Galina Tyunina) was pretty intriguing, until they then proceeded to do absolutely nothing with her that I can remember. It’s revealed that she was imprisoned in the form of a stuffed owl for sixty years for some terrible crime she committed, but then they don’t even tell us what they were. Goddamn teasers.

Anton’s battle with two vampires is done in a novel and entertaining way, completely different from the manner in which even the film itself jokes about by literally referencing Buffy the Vampire Slayer later on.

The little boy Yegor (Dmitri Martynov), upon learning about the existence of vampires, studies the Buffy Versus Dracula episode of the eponymous show in order to get tips, and starts carving a stake himself, which is somewhat funny to me.

The two guys that lead the armies of the Light and Dark, Geser (Vladimir Menshov) and Zavulon (Viktor Verzhbitsky), are pretty cool. The way in which Zavulon uses a sword made of his own spine is the only really creepy thing in the flick.

Geser is a chubby old guy who looks like the old Communist premier Nikita Khrushchev. I will flatter all of you and pretend you’re all too young to remember what he looked like. Suffice to say he just looks like a Soviet bureaucrat. He runs the City Light Company, which is actually the Night Watch, which is like a police force / secret police / emergency response team. They even have their own trucks, which look cute and burn nitrous oxide.

Speaking of the trucks, anyone who’s seen a clip or a trailer has seen the great sequence where one of these trucks is blazing down the road and needs to avoid hitting a particular guy. The driver pulls some levers, stamps on some pedal, and the truck goes end over end in a pretty awesome (though mostly CGI) sequence.

Speaking of effects, this film was made for around US 4 million dollars. That’s the equivalent of the smell of an oily Hollywood rag. It is a decent effort to get the film to look so impressive, to the point where Fox Searchlight, 20th Century Fox’s indie film subsidiary, decided to pick the film up for overseas distribution. The production values are excellent.

Shame about the fucking plot. Honestly, I felt let down by the film. I’m still going to check out the next two proposed sequels, Day Watch (Dvevnoy Dozor, scheduled for 2006) and Dusk Watch, but I’m not going to go in expecting anything amazing, like I did walking into this. What a fool I was, now probably no more than ever.

But you don’t have to be. Not armed with foreknowledge as you are now, my little koshkas.

5 armies of Light and Dark that should really have found a more entertaining way to amuse me out of 10

"Well, say something. Be human." – something I feel like saying on the streets of Fitzroy sometimes, but in this case comes from Night Watch.